Year-round feeders likely lured colorful Anna’s

jdodge@theolympian.comJanuary 28, 2014 

The tale of the Anna’s hummingbird is a nice antidote for the malaise associated with a world of shrinking habitats and declining species.

This stocky, medium-sized hummingbird with the iridescent emerald feathers and shiny rose-to-pink throat has expanded its historic range from Western California into the Pacific Northwest in recent years, much to the delight of those of us who have learned to leave our hummingbird feeders out all winter long.

The 2013 Christmas bird counts by the National Audubon Society chapters in the Seattle and Olympia areas support the premise that Anna’s hummingbirds are perfectly willing to hang out in the Puget Sound region through our dark and gloomy winters.

The holiday bird counts, an Audubon tradition since 1900, have a more than 50-year history in South Sound. No Anna’s were spotted in the Thurston County area until 1983, when the first one was noted in the all-volunteer survey by Olympia-based Black Hills Audubon. There was one bird seen in 10 out of 21 years, then two in 2005, followed by 11 in 2006, 54 in 2011 and a record 111 in 2013, noted Bill Shelmerdine, a Black Hills Audubon member who keeps track of the bird count data.

The Seattle Audubon numbers show a similar trend starting about 15 years ago, a little earlier than Olympia. “Fifteen years ago was the first time more than 50 birds were seen here,” Seattle Audubon Society data compiler Matt Bartels said. The 2013 number was a record 580 Anna’s hummingbirds during the one-day Seattle event.

So what gives? Why has this insect-eating, nectar-drinking hummingbird, which can shine like jewelry flying through the air, gravitated to more northern climes?

Who better to weigh in with an opinion than Dennis Paulson, recently retired director of the Slater Museum of Natural History at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma and a well-respected ornithologist in the Puget Sound region for more than 20 years.

The surge in the number of Anna’s in the winter has happened too fast to think it’s associated with some physical, evolutionary change in the bird species, Paulson surmised.

“I attribute the increase in the species primarily to the increased presence of year-round hummingbird feeders,” he said. Also playing a lesser role could be the increase in landscaping favorable to attracting birds, including plants that bloom year-round.

He noted that Anna’s are well-known for their ability to disperse, so more birds may be moving up from California. However, the local populations may be increasing due to more successful reproduction.

Their ability to adapt to the colder Pacific Northwest winters may also be traced to their varied diet, which includes more insects than many hummingbird species, Shelmerdine said. The insects provide nutrients at a time of year when not many flowers are blooming, and they provide a slower metabolizing source of food that may assist the Anna’s as they enter a state of torpor at night to decrease their heart rate and conserve calories.

Eld Inlet resident Kim Merriman, an avid observer of wildlife activity around her waterfront home, noticed her first wintertime Anna’s about five years ago. She rushed into her kitchen, whipped up some sugar water — four parts water to one part sugar — filled a hummingbird feeder, then watched the solitary bird start feeding immediately.

In recent years, the number of birds at her feeders has steadily increased. “Last night at dusk there were nine birds feeding,” she said.

She’s pretty sure some of these birds are nesting not far from the porch.

Merriman and others remind everyone to keep their hummingbird feeders cleaned. And on the freezing winter nights, bring the feeders inside so the hummingbirds aren’t stymied by icy water in the morning.

Our own experience at Horsefeathers Farm tracks with the overall trend. However, the farm is a little late to the party. I think that’s because they seemed to occupy the marine shoreline environs first, not the colder interior of the county such as East Olympia, where we live.

We started seeing Anna’s in the winter three years ago and have been feeding them routinely year-round ever since. However, they do seem to defer to the more aggressive Rufous hummingbirds once the warm weather arrives.

There’s a buzz in the air and it’s not just the hummingbirds announcing their presence. It’s the sound of bird enthusiasts excited by the prospect that Anna’s hummingbirds are sticking around, providing high energy, colorful company through the dark days of winter.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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